Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Better yet, what is the correct definition of freedom? And where, exactly, does your freedom overlap my freedom?

Are you, for example, free to open your front door and let your dog out onto your yard when mine is right next door and we both know dogs don’t understand where your yard ends and mine begins? Can a pedophile who genuinely gets some morbid sense of pleasure from his actions be allowed to have free access to innocent children because of issues of relating to his freedom to live as he sees fit? Can you impose your lifestyle beliefs on my children because you happen to be the teacher of the school they attend, even if I do not want you to? This is a question cultures have debated for centuries, but it is interesting that many non-Western cultures are becoming increasingly convinced that they have it right, while we and other Western countries no longer do.

Let me quote T.R. Reid in Confucius Lives Next Door:

“I heard this same indictment time and again from Asian intellectuals and business or political leaders: The United States has let crime, divorce, and deviant behavior go too far, the argument runs. But lifting the rights of the individual onto a pedestal, America has reduced the collective good of the overall society to a low priority [bold added, for emphasis]. In the name of freedom, individuals have been permitted to run amok, undermining the freedom of the community as a whole…[quoting Mahbubani]’American society has swung too much in one direction: liberating the individual while imprisoning society…What is striking is the Americans’ failure to ask fundamental questions such as: ‘Is there too much freedom in American society?’’” (P. 220)

The Mahbubani Reid quotes above is “Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat who has spent a good deal of time in America” (p.17) and he is further quoted on p. 17 as saying, “’…societies can be better off when some boundaries of individual freedom are limited rather than broadened. The resultant increase in social and communal harmony in turn can be liberating for the individual.’”

Another source Reid quotes as criticizing the excessive expression of U.S. freedom is from Malaysia’s president Mahathir: “’For Asians, the community, the majority comes first. The individual and the minority must have their rights, but not at the unreasonable expense of the majority. The individuals and the minority must conform to the mores of society. A little deviation may be allowed, but unrestrained exhibition of personal freedom which disturbs the peace or threatens to undermine society is not what Asians expect from democracy.” (p. 221)

Reid concludes, “…the dark and dismal picture of American society that is commonplace today throughout East Asia has convinced many people there that the United States, despite its vibrant economy, is a decaying society caught in a downward spiral.” (p. 222)

So what is the verdict—do we have “too much” freedom? Do we misconstrue the interpretation of freedom too heavily on the right of the individual at the expense of the greater good of the community? I think so.


So what is it, exactly, that generates a sense of national identity or cohesiveness? Obviously, the title to this blog gave that away. It is comprised of two components: shared values, plus shared traditions.

Interestingly, this can involve any shared values, and any shared traditions. A shared value is obviously something we all believe in, like being respectful. A shared tradition is something like setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. The previous blog covered the idea of shared traditions–things like holidays to initiate young people into the work force, holidays to initiate them into society–holidays, actually, for practically anything, but ones that everyone values and supports. Today I’m going to focus on shared values.

Because they embrace Confucianism as a people, the Japanese have Confucian shared values. We have traditionally had Judeo-Christian shared values, although Muslim nations have Islamic shared values, and ancient Sparta had a really unusual set of shared values (having to do with toughening up children to be the warriors of the fighting city-state they believed they needed to be to survive). The point is that there actually be a set a of shared values that most us value.

The problem we have in the U.S. today is that we are increasingly unable to settle upon a shared set of values that we all agree upon. Because there are various religious beliefs represented among our increasingly diverse citizenship we hesitate to mandate the Judeo-Christian tradition upon those unwilling to adhere to it. Thus, the problem becomes, what are the shared values we, as a people group, embrace?

If we are to arrive at a sense of national identity that survives in the coming years it is essential that we settle upon something. My suggestion is that while various of us may personally embrace our private belief systems, we join together as citizens of this country and arrive at a religion-neutral base: a basic set of values–rights and wrongs–that most of us can agree upon.

It is interesting that if we were to hypothetically conduct an experiment and pool diverse individuals from diverse backgrounds (and even different countries), they could probably agree upon a basic code of right and wrong. Everyone agrees stealing is wrong. Everyone understands lying is wrong. Everyone feels people should be respectful of others. We agree murder is wrong. What we differ in is our interpretation of what constitutes stealing, lying, murder, etc. Mennonites, for example, feel fighting as a soldier is murder, while most other religions do not; certain Muslim groups believe blowing yourself up for the cause of Allah is admirable, but most other people do not. What needs to be worked out are the details because there is consensus as to the general ideas of morality.

The purpose of a program such as this wouldn’t be to establish a big brother type of government to enforce compliance with a pre-determined value system. That would be a dictatorship, not a democracy or republic, such as we have. But promoting values isn’t in the exclusive domain of dictator states; every country has the perrogative and, dare I say, responsibility, to determine what it values and to appropriately allocate resources to promote it.

We currently value going green; we allocate resources to it. We could likewise allocate resources to promoting higher education as a goal for everyone. We could promote a nationwide plan of personal savings, say encouraging all of us to store away half of a year’s worth of income “for a rainy day.” This could potentially lessen the strain on public funds in terms of welfare and unemployment compensation. We could promote a campaign of something as simple as community pride (keeping your neighborhood clean and safe), or general respectfulness for others (by smiling or giving up your seat on a bus or helping someone out).

The possibilities are endless, and they are good.

“Many years ago the United States decided to open its doors to all, regardless of creed or nationality. This has created unique problems of cultural differences which more homogenous nations, such as Japan, simply do not face. We need to promote and recognize that we are indeed “one nation”; that we face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges as our neighbors. Thus, those in authority must be pro-active in remediating both the moral deficit and lack of national spirit in our people. While we do not want to be aggressively nationalistic, we do want to feel we have something in common with our fellow Americans other than just physical proximity. We need a sense of community and the recognition that it is indeed a privilege to be an American; that we are all “in it together”-qualities we gain not be talking, but by raising the standard of what it means to be an American.”

* * *

With the myriad of issues facing the U.S. today, my saying that the one of our primary problems is a lack of national spirit may leave you incredulous. Now I’m not suggesting that we put on our red, white, and blue party hats and make sure everyone celebrates the fourth of July, or that we all memorize the Constitution, although this might not hurt. Nor am I suggesting the type of narrow minded nationalism which preceded the World Wars in Europe. I fully recognize that we live in a global community that is becoming ever smaller and that it is essential that we understand this if we are to not only survive, but also thrive, in the twenty-first century.

The national spirit that I’m referring to is probably better described as national cohesiveness. We need to recognize that regardless of economic position, educational level, ethnicity, religion, or any other indicator, we have shared interests with other people in the United States that we simply don’t have with citizens of other countries. We face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges, and, regardless of our differences, really are “in it together.”

As a country, however, we simply haven’t been very good at this idea of national cohesion. The “citizenship experience” of one American isn’t necessarily the same as the experience of another American, and the more different the neighborhood you live in, economic position, educational level, etc., the more chance there is that “your America” will be different from “my America.”

Regardless, we need it to survive. It is the glue or cement, if you will, that spurs us on toward sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, a concept that has become increasingly foreign to us, but one without which we will find ourselves a group of cohabitating strangers rather than a national family.

So what, you might ask, are some ways to promote “national cohesiveness”? One of the ways to do this is by building traditions and ceremonies. Religion traditionally serves this purpose, but is an effective way to build traditions and ceremonies only when the majority is of one particular religion and agrees to promote that religion. Because of the increasing (although the percentages are still quite low at this point) numbers of people of non-Judeo Christian background in our country, we have become increasingly religio-phobic regarding officially promoting the traditions of Judeo-Christianity. Thus, a vacuum of shared tradition exists and we must fill it if we are to feel that we have something in common with our fellow citizens.

In Confucius Lives Next Door, T.R. Reid explains, “About one million new graduates—kids who have finished high school or college about a month before this big day—start their working careers on April 1 every year” (p. 154)]. Thus, the day all new high school and college graduate begin work is one of the ways the Japanese instill values in their new graduates. T.R. Reid continues, “A society should make a collective fuss about a day so important in the lives of a million of its citizens A society should sit back and take the time to make sure these young people understand the privileges and responsibilities that come with moving on to a new stage of life. Any society…can benefit from the rituals and ceremonies that remind people that they live in a community with a shared moral and cultural tradition…The whole point of ceremonies like…[that] is to tell the members what is expected of them. Then a company, a school, or a community will rely on the members’ basic human decency to make them live up to expectations…” (p. 159)

Besides a national “initiate the new workers into the workforce day” (which might not specifically work in the U.S. because we hire employees when we need them, not once a year), the Japanese also hold official coming of age ceremonies, something which could work with great success here.

“Of the countless ceremonies held regularly in Japan, my favorite was Seijin-shiki, the Coming-of-Age Ceremony, held annually on January 15. On that date each year, all the Japanese who will turn twenty during the year are toasted and honored in official ceremonies during which they are officially recognized as adult citizens of Japan, with all the rights and all the many responsibilities appurtenant thereto…[it] is one of the chief means of inculcating the national sense of responsibility that helps make the country polite, civil, and safe.” (p. 161)

I especially like Mr. Reid’s assessment of the effectiveness of this ceremony. “It would be romantic to the point of naivete to suggest that all the ninetten-year-olds in Japan that day came storming out of the local Seijin-shiki armed with a new determination to work hard, obey the law, and devote themselves selflessly to the overall society. But some of them probably did react that way. And all of those who attended at least were made aware that the community had expectations for them—that the society had certain values and that the values were important, important enough for the whole country to take a holiday, and for the city to hold a ceremony, and for their parents to shell out big yen for the necessary outfits. The so-called Confucian values or Asian values on display at the Coming-of-Age Ceremony were no better than, and not much different from, the Judeo-Christian values or Islamic values or humanistic values treasured in other parts of the world. But the Japanese, at least on January 15 every year, were doing a better job of emphasizing how much those values matter.” (p. 166)

Of course, we in the U.S. have graduation ceremonies, but these are more an acknowledgement of academic accomplishment and a type of “I’m done!” celebration rather than a “you’re a fully functioning member of society and we expect you to live up to your responsibilities” event. Graduations are conducted by institutions of learning; a coming-of-age ceremony should probably be conducted by the municipality, perhaps even with the mayor presiding, to give it authenticity and substance. What could motivate young adults to attend? Any of a number of things. It could be the only way to register to vote; if feasible, a financial perk such as a certificate for $1000 off an item such as a new car or $5000 off the purchase of a new home in the community could be handed out. The possibilities are endless, actually, but the purpose is to get everybody there, and impress upon them that they are now adult members of society with responsibilities to our society. What do you think?

After sitting down yesterday afternoon to pull out some representative quotes from T.R. Reid’s book Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West, I had to wonder, why can’t we have the same kind of success here?

Why indeed, do we have to be proactively cautious, afraid, or really afraid (depending on what our particular neighborhood looks like), instead of experiencing the same peace of mind Asians do in their country? Is this a genetic thing, or are they doing something we’ve missed?

I’ve come to the (perhaps slightly unpleasant) conclusion that they are, indeed, doing something we aren’t. What they are doing is thinking clearly, from the top down, about what qualities they want their society to possess, and that’s something we in this country are no longer doing. It may be engrained in their collective subconscious because of years of Confucianism, but these are still goals that the government promotes and with which the citizens cooperate with.

Before we get too worked up about government promoting values, we need to remember that this is something our government is already doing. Just yesterday I bought a sheet of “Go Green” stamps at the post office. Each individual stamp has an ecologically responsible suggestion right on it: “buy local produce; reuse bags,” “fix water leaks,” “share rides,” “turn off lights not in use,” “choose to walk,” “compost,” “recycle more,” “ride a bike,” “plant trees,” “insulate the home,” “use public transportation,” “use efficient light bulbs,” “adjust the thermostat,” “maintain tire pressure,” and “go green-reduce our environmental footprint.” Simple little suggestions, but they prove my point. This is not new—we’ve been there, done that. What would be new is focusing on more than one issue every ten years or so. But then again, don’t we have more than one problem per decade we could work on?

Education, industry, thrift, savings, manners, working legitimately to improve your lot in life—which of these ideals would 99.9% of our population not agree with? These are values I would term as universal; they are things virtually everyone can agree on, and they would certainly help our country, reeling as it is with budget deficit issues. They are, furthermore, I believe, in line with traditional Judeo-Christian values.

So why don’t we learn from the Asians? Yes, we’re having budgetary issues and creating another governmental agency to determine appropriate values to promote might seem wasteful, but we really do need to think long-term. And long-term, we have a significant issue in this country—one of a values vacuum.

In the past children learned values through religious training in the school system. Our pluralistic society no longer permits governmentally sanctioned religious instruction, thus, generation after generation of this country’s children are growing up in a moral vacuum previously filled by religious instruction. The results are the Safeway shootings, the Columbine shootings, and the countless other less publicized crimes committed by generations that have no grounding in values and little concept of right and wrong. It is ridiculous for us as a country to put up with this when it can be so easily fixed.

“When you make a list, then, of the “Asian” values—hard work, honesty, thrift, a commitment to education—they sound remarkably similar to the values I was taught as a boy, far, far from Asia, growing up in the United States” (p. 245)

“’We can’t criticize these people for working hard, saving a lot, investing in the future, educating rigorously. Those are the very things we’ve always called Yankee virtues. They helped us build the most successful nation in the world. So it shouldn’t surprise us if the same values turn out to work for people here [the Japanese] as well.’” (U.S. ambassador to Japan, Michael Armacost) (p. 246)

“…the Asians had succeeded by applying our values…How come these traditional values seem to [be] working better in Asia than in the West? I would say it’s because the East Asians, at least over the past half century or so, have done a better job of inculcating their cultural tradition, of bringing their basic moral values to bear on the events of daily life.” (p. 246)

So that’s it—they’re doing what we used to do, and it’s working for them. We, on the other hand, have dropped the ball and are suffering the consequences.

(Next time—ways to fix this!)

In light of the no longer quite so recent Safeway shooting, the various difficulties confronting our society have again been in the spotlight.  It appears to me that the two primary issues confronting us today are 1) moral deficit and 2) lack of national spirit.  T.R. Reid’s 1999 Vintage Books publication Confucius Lives Next Door explains how the Japanese have pulled themselves up from almost complete annhiliation to become highly economically successful while maintaining a remarkable social and communal harmony.  Notwithstanding the recent tragedies which have struck Japan, this is still a must-read for learning from example.

One of the primary methods the Japanese use to encourage good behavior is inculcation.  We in the U.S. had used it successfully for several centuries.  Until the mid-twentieth century we taught our children Judeo-Christian values, reflected for years in lower rates of crime and various now-common social problems.  Because of our current diversity, we are understandably apprehensive about favoring one set of religious values over another, but the fact is that not only many individuals but also most of the traditional world religions have similarity of consensus as to basic moral behavior.  So why can we, as a nation, not promote the values we agree upon?

I personally fear government indiscriminately inculcating values in me which I do not ascribe to, but we must be reasonable.  Governmental influence can certainly be used to control and oppress, but it can also be legislatively directed to promote desirable behavior.  While the United States has been significantly more judicious than Japan in its use of attempting to influence the collective consciousness of its citizens, the 1980’s had the “Just Say No” drug and the 1970’s its “Keep America Beautiful” anti-littering campaigns.  We must not assume that just because we have always done things a certain way it is the best or only way, or that because we haven’t tried something, it isn’t worth trying. Furthermore, we must realistically assess the condition of our country and conclude that it can, indeed, be improved.

We must certainly be prudent about selecting the behavior we want to encourage.  This must not be an opportunity for special interests to promote their agendas.  We must avoid controversial topics a majority of our citizens cannot agree upon.  Nor must we use this as an opportunity to control religious groups, or tell them what they can and cannot teach.  Rather, there must be consensus.  Putting it to a vote would ensure that there is equity and balance in the program.

Many years ago the United States decided to open its doors to all, regardless of creed or nationality.  This has created unique problems of cultural differences which more homogenous nations, such as Japan, simply do not face.  We need to promote and recognize that we are indeed “one nation”; that we face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges as our neighbors.  Thus, those in authority must be pro-active in remediating both the moral deficit and lack of national spirit in our people.  While we do not want to be agressively nationalistic, we do want to feel we have something in common with our fellow Americans other than just physical proximity.  We need a sense of community and the recognition that it is indeed a privilege to be an American; that we are all “in it together”–qualities we gain not be talking, but by raising the standard of what it means to be an American.

T.R. Reid’s book is an examination of a people group who have perfected the technique of pulling together as a nation through times of both prosperity and distress. There are lessons here that we can learn.

“T.R. Reid is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief.  He has appeared on Nightline and Meet the Press, and has weekly commentaries on National Public Radio.  Reid graduated from Princeton University and had several careers—Latin teacher, Naval officer, lawyer—before joining The Washington Post in 1977.  He covered Congress and three presidential campaigns before taking over the Tokyo Bureau in 1990, and has written for numerous magazines, including National Geographic.” (quote taken from the book)

The United States is no longer at the peak of its game. This is not to say there is another nation as powerful or as rich as the U.S. It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that no nation can be exempt from the typical pattern of world dominance and subsequent decline. Historically, nations take quite a while to ascend the top of the pyramid. Once there, a period of well-being ensues, because military peace facilitates economic prosperity. Subsequently, however, there is a rather sudden and precipitous drop initiated by complacency and internal decadence, which other nations eventually exploit.

While being at the top is never an unmitigated high, the United States has already generally passed through its period of economic scarcity and basic struggle for survival. Despite experiencing several recessions and at least one depression, it emerged as a world leader in the twentieth century. Since then unprecedented economic prosperity and military peace has ensued, resulting in the current period of complacency–a perfect storm for future problems.

Why does this matter? It matters because whatever happens here affects all of us directly, and, if you have children, it will affect them too. As touched as we might be when we hear about earthquakes in Japan or political upheaval in the Middle East, it’s not our families that are being washed away by a tsunami or killed in the streets. Over two centuries of safety from attack on our own soil have engendered in us an attitude of invincibility. When 9/11 happened, we were caught off guard and forced to contemplate the frightening possibility that we might not, in fact, be as invincible as we had believed.

So what’s the solution?  The problem is complex and thus, the solutions are too, but the bottom line is that we must stay on top of our game.  This involves each and every one of us as citizens of our nation keeping up to speed with what is going on in the world today.  It means committing to excellence in whatever we undertake and not settling for second best.  Most importantly, it means adopting a more disciplined personal code as a people group, because the lessons of history teach us that decadence as status quo is never permanent.

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